If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a big fan of the late Nelson Mandela.
It wasn’t always so. The day he was released from prison in 1990, I watched his speech on CNN. I was eighteen years old, and fancied myself a patriot, and five minutes in I decided he was a communist and changed the channel.
It’s true he used the word comrades in the first minute or so of the speech, and praised the work of the South African Communist Party early on. But what I missed in my impatience was the rest of the address, where he took pains to recognize every organization that had contributed to the fight for racial equality in South Africa during his confinement. It was a long list.
He went on to praise the man many would have considered his chief adversary, South African President F. W. De Klerk, for his readiness to ease the restrictions of the apartheid system–and in the same breath assert that Mr. De Klerk and his government had not yet done enough to allow serious talks.
He made the point that the conditions that had compelled the African National Congress (ANC) to take up arms still existed, but described a vision for a non-racial South Africa in which each citizen, regardless of skin color, had an equal voice in governance.
This in response to a government that had been censured, indeed sanctioned, by the world community for its refusal to end brutal repression of its black majority by its white minority; that made it a policy to enforce racist laws by allowing white police to beat blacks for minor infractions; that had imprisoned him, often in solitary confinement and at hard labor, for 27 years.
He emerged from prison stating his willingness to negotiate, expressing his readiness to forgive and embrace everyone in his vision of a South Africa where all had equal shares in prosperity and hardship. He promised to bring his vision to life, to fight for it if need be, to die for it if necessary.
Then he made it happen. He kept his promise, making a point of giving the very whites who had imprisoned him equal voices in his country after their repulsive apartheid system was extinguished. He insisted blacks were equal to whites–then, when the law recognized the truth and the blacks had a chance to take revenge, he insisted whites were equal to blacks and no revenge would be taken. And his people, angry as they were, followed his lead.
And today, South Africa prospers, while its neighbor Zimbabwe–where the blacks have taken their revenge and repression of whites has now been law for two decades or more–is an economic basket case.
Have a dozen people lived in my lifetime who could have pulled off such a feat? I don’t think so. Probably more than one–but not many more.
We lost a true hero on December 5th. I am grateful we had him as long as we did.